NZEI Annual Conference

  • Wyatt Creech

President Liz Patara, other members of the Executive and delegates. Thank you for the opportunity to address your Conference this year.

In the two and half years since I have been the Minister of Education I have spoken to your conference each year. I have taken the opportunity to review the year gone by and talk of the year ahead.

This year I look back on a year of particular significance for the Government and the NZEI.

We made history in 1998. The year gone by saw the introduction of something that the NZEI had been calling for a long time. The Unified Pay System. You all know how historic the achievement of the Unified Pay System is. The Government does as well, but I am not so certain that the public is aware of the significance. With time, that should change as the public realises and appreciates the difference it makes when primary teachers no longer get paid based on the age of the children they teach.

The relationship between the NZEI and the Government over the period leading up to the signing of the contract which gave effect to the Unified Pay System was characterised by a high level of constructive exchange. Some who are more cynically inclined might describe that as an historic achievement as well! I am more optimistic - what I believe it shows is that when teacher organisations and the Government work constructively together a lot can be achieved. In fact I think the introduction of the Unified Pay System showed what can come from constructive dialogue.

The Government had already committed itself to the principle of a Unified Pay System. A lot of effort was needed to flesh out the detail around that broad commitment. Although there were tensions from time to time in the development process, and in the end to get agreement both sides had to make compromises they would rather not have had to make which will have to be lived with from now on, the new pay structure was put in place without a moment of time lost to industrial action. Again that shows what can be achieved when organisations rely on considered persuasion and rational argument to assert their case.

The Unified Pay System wasn't universally applauded. I have not found the PPTA position helpful. Although they have said they agree with the Unified Pay System, the PPTA have also claimed that the entrenchment clause - which permanently links the primary and secondary pay scales so the old differential cannot re-emerge - they say that the entrenchment clause is holding back salary increases for their people. Their argument is inconsistent. They cannot say to you that they agree that there should be no pay differential and at the same time argue that that is holding them back. That just doesn't work.

The Unified Pay System has been a big achievement but once a public policy objective is achieved and has been in place for a while, other issues come up and the debate seems to change to another field. The long term struggle to achieve that objective becomes passe and people easily forget how difficult it was to get there.

That is why I am talking of it today. In the case of the Unified Pay System, taxpayers' chipped in an extra $250 million - that is what it cost. Wherever anyone involved in education works from now their pay will be based on the Unified Pay System. An important long term goal has been achieved.

Mentioning goals leads me neatly to discussing what the Government is trying to achieve through education policy. We have four clear goals. I use every opportunity I can to reiterate and explain what these goals are.

They are simple, but they are also fundamental to ensuring that every young New Zealander is in the best possible position to make the most of their lives.

The first goal is to continually lift the quality and standards of all parts of our education system. The reason for that as a key goal is obvious. We live in a competitive world, the standard of living and the quality of life for the future will depend on the kind of skills and qualifications that our people have. Unless we match that applying in the rest of the world, the quality of life in New Zealand will inevitably fall.

The second clear goal for us in education decision making is to see that our policies involve parents and communities in the education of their children. Research exercise after research exercise show that parental involvement helps. In fact you don't even need research to understand that - all that is needed is for people to think about it. Tomorrows Schools to me is all about that. Getting parents in partnership with the others involved at the local level, including teachers, really involved in their children's education. Tomorrows Schools is about devolving important operational decisions for our young people's education system to parents and school communities through Boards of Trustees. I support that concept strongly because I believe it will lead to better educational outcomes for our young people.

Our third clear goal is to prepare young New Zealanders for the inevitably technology-rich skills-based 21st Century. Improved skills and knowledge together with the appropriate values and motivations will be the basis for a better life in the future. What we teach our young people must be relevant for what they will need to know.

Our fourth goal is to better address the needs of at-risk students. The general public are often scandalised when I tell them that we spend about $65 million through the Training Opportunities Programme on programmes for sixteen and seventeen year olds. A fair whack of that money is spent on basic literacy, numeracy and life skills courses. How, they will ask me, can it possibly be that after eleven years in our public education system, students can emerge without those basic skills?

Already we have a number of programmes happening within the education system that contribute to addressing the needs of the at risk group.

I mentioned earlier tensions. There are always tensions in this sector. It covers such a broad comprehensive range of issues, it is no wonder that from time to time differences in policy emerge.

One of those areas where there is some tension at the moment is with our special education policy. We are eighteen months through the three year implementation period of Special Education 2000.

Special Education 2000 is a huge new, complex policy, that is why we are phasing it in. It involves substantial change - and like most change it takes time for people to fully understand the benefits and to accept the alternate approach.

Unfortunately some critics have tried to boil down some of the issues in special education into stark black and white, simple rights and wrongs. Of all the education policy issues I have been involved in, special education would have to be the one where shades of grey dominate. To try to present the policy changes, and their impact in a simplistic and black and white manner ignores the very nature of the special needs we are trying to respond to.

I am convinced that Special Education 2000 is right for New Zealand. Many of the concerns that we are hearing of arise not because the policy is wrong in any way but because people have the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes they just simply don't know what is going to happen and in such an environment, it is easy for opponents to exploit the situation to create some media scares and hoo-ha's.

For many years in New Zealand the allocation of services to special education had been very unfair. It seems to me impossible as Minister of Education to justify saying to a young person in one part of New Zealand with a special education need that you will be provided with x amount of resource to help deal with your special education needs, while saying to a child in another part of New Zealand you will be provided with significantly less.

For a policy to be fair it has to be equitable. We have to be able to say to a person that no matter where you live in New Zealand you should be provided with the same level of service.

For a policy to be fair it has to be comprehensive. We are all individuals and we all have different needs. Obviously some have needs that are substantially more profound than others, we have to be able to take that into account.

The final objective of Special Education 2000 is to have a system that will adapt to the changing locations of children with special education needs.

We have phased in Special Education 2000 because of the complexity and size of the changes we are making. As we phase it in, we are also fine-tuning the policy, developing it further and making improvements

I am pleased today to be able to announce additions to the Special Education 2000 policy which will help improve the way it works in practice, and the way it delivers for students with special education needs.

There are four new components to Special Education 2000 - all designed to help students who need support from time to time to help them with their schooling regardless of where they attend school.

The first very important breakthrough relates to assistance for students with severe behaviour problems, and for their teachers.

You will know first hand the stresses and difficulties associated with having to deal with these kids, because of the harm and distress they cause themselves, and because of the similar impact they have on other students in the class.

We have been trialing the Behaviour Initiative in the Waikato. We will definitely extend the severe behaviour initiative nationwide. The trial of the Behaviour Initiative has been very successful - and I have many examples of parents and teachers who are very supportive of the programme.

During next year there will be the establishment of 17 Behaviour Education Support teams of specialists delivering support in the school for children with severe behaviour problems.

In addition there will be 30 Centres for Extra Support off the school site. In some cases it may be necessary to withdraw some students into separate off-site programmes for intensive work on behaviour. This is not a chance for a school to heave a sigh of relief and hope they won't see the student again but rather an opportunity to provide schools, students and families with some expert specialist support and help in order to get the student back into school.

We are also adding to already announced policies for students and staff who have been connected to attached units in the past.

In the past the units were attached to a school and the entitlement went with the unit. The unit stayed there regardless of whether the special education needs were there or not. Over time, as we know, people move about, they move towns, they move suburbs. As populations shifts so do the location of the people with the special education needs. The system must be able to adapt to that change.

The therapy services should apply to children with the need whether they are being educated in a unit or in the mainstream. They are afterall some students in New Zealand who simply don't live near enough to a unit to be able to access it. We have dealt with that problem in Special Education 2000 by making sure the fair share of resource flows to the student in need.

To achieve this we have had to re-jig significant parts of the structure within the system. I want to make it clear here today to say that where school communities want attached units and there are the students there to make them viable they will remain. The suggestion from some opponents of Special Education 2000 that there will be mass closures is just nonsense.

Schools have been organised into clusters and when they know how many students they have to deal with in their cluster they work out the best arrangement for dealing with them.

I am told that at the public meeting in Auckland last week, several parents stood and said how they had been told that their units were being disestablished and there would be nothing for their kids next year. A teacher from the school, not a defender of Government policy, stood up and said that was wrong. Whoever had told the parents that had misled them.

I acknowledge that this is a difficult problem for parents as it is hard to get the information across. Many of the concerns being publicly expressed are not driven by the fact that something will happen, but because they don't know what will happen.

I can announce some further elements of Special Education 2000 here today that will address problems that have received media profile of late. There are a group of teachers who currently work in regular class settings with students who have visual impairments, hearing impairments, who are physically disabled, or intellectually disabled. They are currently attached as part of the staffing entitlement to one school, but work with teachers and students in a group of schools. From next year these positions will still be there although funded through alternative means.

Cabinet yesterday approved a further $2.24 million in funding for next year to help with the transition. The Ministry will now work out with schools arrangements for next year for special schools and units for students with physical disabilities, and for resource teachers of students with intellectual disabilities in mainstream classrooms. The funding will allow schools and units for students with physical disabilities to retain their occupational therapists and physiotherapists. Many see them as crucial to the maintenance of units for students with physical disabilities.

We have decided to set up a system of needs based contracts to provide national coverage of services to students with moderate sensory and or physical impairments. The contracts will ensure that current provision for the group of students with sensory impairments is largely maintained, and in some cases extended.

The Ministry of Education will be working with the NZEI and Boards of Trustees over the next few weeks with the aim of keeping itinerant teachers in their jobs. This is likely to provide much needed certainty for those teachers. The Ministry will also work with residential special schools to closer align them with Special Education 2000.

I readily accept that the introduction of Special Education 2000 is a very significant one. It has been in the too hard basket for too long. I have taken a close personal interest in special education policy for a long time. It does not surprise me that some issues emerge as we introduce such a large and comprehensive change. Fine tuning will be needed from time to time with aspects of the policy. For example, we added the Transitional Resourcing Scheme to the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme when it became obvious that the criteria were not working as we expected for 5 to 7 year olds. I can give you an assurance that I will continue to watch the introduction closely and where necessary modify the approach. I want to see in our country a special education policy that is fair to all and that we can be proud of.

The Government has committed up to $200 million more taxpayer dollars to Special Education 2000. We want a good policy for young people.

We also want a good policy in the early childhood area. In the recent Cabinet reshuffle policy in that area was delegated to my colleague Tau Henare. Tau has come into the education area because he wants to see better outcomes for Maori education. He is absolutely committed in this area and I will support him.

If I could conclude by looking to the next 12 months. I think it is well accepted that as a nation we have a challenging year ahead economically. This will test us all. We can't simply close our eyes and ears and hope for the best. As a country we have to take the necessary, responsible action to ensure all of us, young and old get through these times in a manner that keeps us in the best possible position to create the best future for the younger generation.

In education the future always poses significant challenges, and we are already responding. The four goals, that I outlined earlier are at the heart of our approach. I hope in coming months to be able to flesh out more details of ways to lift the quality of education and make it work for all young New Zealanders.

We have to keep moving forward as a nation - and the education our young people receive is vital to the progress we make in the future. I am looking forward to continuing to work to advance the interests of our young people.

I believe as I said before that more will be achieved if the NZEI and primary teachers continue stick to the constructive approach and tactics that we saw during the negotiations over the Unified Pay System. There will always be differences in policy between us. That should surprise no one. But I want to make this point clear. Both myself and the Government are committed to better education outcomes for all. So even where differences exist it is not because our motivation is anything other than aimed at the best. And finally it is the Government that determines and is accountable to the electorate for education policy. Constructive dialogue that respects and does not misrepresent other people points of view is the best way forward. Aiming to do the best not for ourselves but for the young people of New Zealand has to be the only legitimate goal. Our young people are afterall the reason all of us are in our jobs. It is them we must think about.

Thank you very much.